Should Christian Leaders Receive Public Immunity?
Last week I wrote an entry called Bill O’Reilly Doesn’t Quite Get It. My post drew quite a bit of comment and even stirred up a bit of debate about the existence of God. But the most fascinating response had nothing to do with what I wrote but with the fact that I wrote it at all. Someone sent an email objecting to my entry because, he said, I should have discussed the matter with Bill O’Reilly privately. Here is part of what he wrote: "I did not see the program, however I am a bit angry at your electronic report. If you need to correct Mr. O’Reilly, then you should have done it privately between you and him. The public forum is not a place to correct another Christian. If you have listened to Bill over the years, you know he is not a relativist on the issue of Jesus, resurrection, God, the Bible, et al.
"I believe that his response, could have been STATED better or in more absolute terms. BUT I would not take you, him or anyone else to the editorial woodshed in a public forum without first speaking with originator of the statement.
"I think you owe Mr Bill a public apology for violating the Biblical principle of FIRST confronting the individual one on one when something wrong or perceived wrong with another’s conduct or speech.
I also you should ask for forgiveness for backbiting."
To which my response is . . . hmmmm. I am not entirely certain how to respond to this comment because I am sure he is not entirely wrong. And I am not entirely sure that my own thoughts on the matter are correct. Here is how I see it, subject to further enlightenment from my readers:
1) There is a huge difference between public and private communications. Bill O’Reilly is a public figure, speaking publicly, seeking public comment and interaction, and even giving his email address so that people can write him with their feedback. It seems reasonable to me that people should be able to comment on the public statements of public figures.
2) Private disagreements ought to be handled privately where possible. This seems to be in the spirit of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-18.
3) Christian charity should guide all our public comments. To me this means applying the Golden Rule. I should evaluate the words and deeds of others in the same spirit that I wish my own words and deeds to be scrutinized.
4) Disagreement is not the same thing as a personal offense. I don’t even know Bill O’Reilly and will likely never meet him or speak with him. He didn’t offend me personally. For that matter, I like him and watch his show several times a week. But that’s not the issue, really, is it? I watch Larry King and Katie Couric and Rosie O’Donnell and Oprah and American Idol and I listen to Rush Limbaugh and the other night I listened to a guy on the radio who claimed that aliens had landed on the earth and I heard some other guy who said he could talk to the dead and I used to listen to Don Imus sometimes and I occasionally watch Jay Leno and Chris Matthews and Neil Cavuto and I used to watch Judge Wapner on the People’s Court and I surf the net and read everyone from Andrew Sullivan to Pat Buchanan and I have watched Martha Stewart and I like to listen to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Hannity and Colmes and I mostly try not to watch people running for president because I’m not ready for that yet but I do like Fred Thompson and I listen to Keith Olbermann sometimes too. So there. I even listen to NPR occasionally. I disagree with people all the time. Do I have to write them or talk to them before I can write about what they say? If so, I’ll never write anything about anything anyone says–unless I happen to agree with it.
So I wrote back with my answer. He wrote back to “respectfully disagree,” he said. Then he added this: "Praise or edify in public, rebuke, correct or disagree in private. Jesus’ words on handling disagreement apply always, They are not relative to a situation or whether a person is “public” or not."
I dunno. Maybe he’s right about that. I agree in principle that it is a good thing to discuss disagreements with others before you take them public. That certainly applies when there is a previously existing personal relationship. When I was in the pastorate, on a few occasions (not very many) people wrote me or called me to discuss something I had said. I was about to say that I always appreciated that, but, well, I didn’t always appreciate it but that was preferable to someone writing their disagreements in a letter to the congregation.
(I should also note that he is applying this to disagreements among Christians while I’m discussing the question of responding to the public statements of public figures–Christian or not–because I think the same principles generally apply across the board.)
But how are we to respond to the public comments of public figures? Those who speak and write for a living understand that when they speak in public to the public, they are inviting public interaction. There is a huge difference between public and private discussion. If Bill O’Reilly were a friend of mine, and if we had a personal conversation, I might be breaking a confidence to publicly comment on a private conversation. But in the nature of the case, Bill O’Reilly broadcasts to the world. Millions of people listen to his words. He understands that people everywhere will comment on what he says. And it is clear that it doesn’t bother him at all.
5) When we do voice disagreements, or when we offer evaluations of what others have said or done, we should try to stay on topic, not paint with a broad brush, keep our emotions in check, and not cast aspersions on the motives of others. That’s hard to do, especially when we are writing about issues that matter deeply to us. It’s easy to try to “play God” and read the hearts of other people. We can judge what people do and what they say, but we can’t judge why they do what they do. Man looks on the outside; God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
6) In the nature of the case, it is impossible to discuss matters privately with most public figures. I have no idea how much email Bill O’Reilly gets, but I suppose it must be thousands of emails every day. He can’t possibly read them all–or even most of them. I hope he doesn’t because that wouldn’t be a good use of his time. He doesn’t have the time or energy to respond to everyone who writes to him. The same is true of all public figures. James Dobson can’t read all the mail that arrives at Focus on the Family. I presume he has staff that handles his mail so that he only sees a tiny fraction of what is sent to him. That’s the way it has to be.
Here is my bottom line response to the issue raised by the email. Christian leaders should not receive public immunity from their public comments. I deplore the coarsening of public discourse, and I realize that the blogosphere has contributed to that. But there ought to be a place at the table for reasonable discussion and disagreement regarding the public statements of public people. And I don’t exempt myself from that. I thought about it and realized that I have published in one form or another well over one million words. I have written 28 books, speak around the country, have a weblog, and do quite a bit of radio and TV work. In the great pantheon of cultural figures, I’m a wide receiver on the peewee football team, and Bill O’Reilly is a NFL all-star. But I do have my audience. I get critiqued all the time. People evaluate my work, my writing, my words, my books, my sermons, and sometimes they like what I say, sometimes they don’t. Do I always like what they say? No. Do I think it’s always fair? No. Do I think my words are taken out of context? Sometimes.
But that’s part of the deal. As Harry Truman said, If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I don’t get 1 millionth of what Bill O’Reilly gets in terms of criticism, and he mostly lets it run off his back. I try to do the same.
So I’m saying that when you write publicly and speak publicly, you have to accept that others will comment publicly on what you say or write. And they don’t have to talk it over with you in advance.
Somehow we have to find a way to engage the culture and express our disagreements–even our strong disagreements–while speaking the truth in love. Not easy to do, I admit. But it can be done. And that’s why I think public commentary on what others have said and done is not always wrong.
Okay, that’s my two cents. Let me say again that the person who wrote the email does have a good point. I’ve given my response. What do you think? If I’m wrong about this, let me know. Or if you have further insights, I would be glad to hear from you. Click here to offer your comments.